Social Constructivism in Practice: Case Study of an Elementary School's Mathematics Program

Article excerpt

Abstract

This research investigated implications for the implementation of social constructivist epistemology on teaching/learning of mathematics in a K-4 public school with particular focus on African American fourth grade students. In addition, the study examined the impact of social constructivist theory on the structure and culture of the school. Constructivist inquiry was used to make sense of the data. In this paper, there is a discussion of lessons learned from this study with particular emphasis on structural changes, cultural changes, politics of reforming mathematics education, and the impact of social constructivist teaching on African American students' achievement.

**********

There is much research about how students learn mathematics and how mathematics ought to be presented to young children (Burns, 1992; Campbell, 1996; Cobb, Wood, & Yackel, 1991; Cobb & Yackel, 1996; Fennema, Franke, Carpenter, & Carey, 1993; Romberg, Shafer, & Webb, 2000; Simon, 1995; Wheatley & Reynolds, 1999; Yackel, 1995). In addition, research documents indicate that mathematics instruction does not provide students with opportunities to acquire deep mathematical understanding (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics [NCTM], 2000a).

A National Science Foundation (NSF, 1996) report indicates fourth grade students in the United States performed better on mathematics proficiency tests of basic skills compared to previous test results. However, the report exposes students' lack of conceptual understanding of those basic skills. Furthermore, current research shows that minority students (i.e., Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans) perform well below the national average (Ladson-Billings, 2001; NCTM, 2000b, 2000c; 2001a, 2001b, 2001c).

This study communicates the complexity of reforming mathematics education with particular focus on instruction for underachieving African American students. Moses & Cobb (2001) posit that if all students can learn mathematics, then they ought to be provided with opportunities to learn mathematics. Therefore, mathematics literacy is a right rather than a privilege for a few. This study may offer some ideas about how to raise mathematics achievement among African American students who have scored low compared to the average national scores on mathematics achievement tests.

This project investigated the following questions: (1) Can social constructivist epistemology be implemented to raise achievement levels of African American students? (2) What impact does social constructivist theory have on the structure and culture of school? And (3) What are the social and political implications for reforming mathematics education in a K-4 elementary school? The research tells the story of a K-4 elementary school that struggled to reform mathematics education (1990-2003) by implementing social constructivist theory and pedagogy in classrooms. After eight years (1990-1998) of focusing on restructuring and recapturing mathematics classrooms, fourth grade students' scores on state mathematics tests dramatically improved for a five year period: 1999-2003. The test results attracted local and statewide attention because African American and white students achieved at about the same high level. In what follows, we describe some history of the reforms in this K-4 school. Then, we discuss our theoretical framework, the design of the study, and lessons learned.

A Bit of History

The school enrolls 525 students: 60% African American, 34% white, and 6% other racial/ethnic groups. This school is one of five K-4 elementary schools in a Midwest school district that is racially and economically diverse. Eighty-five percent of the teaching staff holds a Master's Degree. The principal, former assistant principal, and two teachers have doctorates in education. The building studied enrolls more students than the other four K-4 buildings in the district and also enrolls the highest percentage of African American students. …